An anti-establishment, norm-breaking, race-baiting, misogynistic presidential candidate has outperformed the polls in an election he’d warned would be rigged unless he won. The candidate is Jair Bolsonaro, and the election happened in Brazil on Sunday, but the comparisons seem inevitable: “ ‘Trump of the Tropics’ Faces Presidential Runoff in Brazil,” announced one headline. “ ‘Brazil’s Donald Trump’ Wins First Round of Presidential Election,” read another. In the run-up to the election, more and more headlines, both mainstream and fringe, have been proclaiming Bolsonaro the “Donald Trump of Brazil.”
Since he announced his presidential bid in 2015, Donald Trump—already a household name and a name brand—has acquired one of the most spoken names in the world. It has morphed into an adjective (Trumpian) and multiple nouns (from Trumpism to Trumpista). The Oxford English Dictionary is considering fast-tracking a host of Trumpian neologisms into its hallowed pages.
As these headlines attest, Trump has also become an epithet, appended to the names of “Trump-like” politicians and business people around the world. So-called Donald Trumps hold the reins of power from Guatemala to Hungary and from Israel to the Philippines.
This is not a completely new phenomenon. Several young, optimistic world leaders were also anointed their country’s “Barack Obama,” including Matteo Renzi in Italy and Emmanuel Macron in France. In the months after Obama’s election, giddy European liberals rushed to crown the British, German, and Dutch Obamas—all first- or second-generation immigrants seen as rising political stars.
But Trump-calling seems to be happening on a far greater scale. I have identified more than 50 individuals whom major English-language media outlets have called the “Trump” of their country. A raft of headlines invites us to “Meet the Donald Trump of Germany”—or of Canada, Indonesia, or Russia. Many of these headlines have the markings of editors looking to turn unfamiliar names into clickbait. Others are part of political commentators’ quest for the Canadian, Australian, or New Zealander Trump on the verge of a political breakthrough.
But the widespread use of this moniker is misleading: It can oversimplify the politics and personality of Trump and his namesakes, ignore that many were “Trump-like” before he was, fuel Trumpian efforts to manipulate the media, and create false expectations that his victory will be replicated elsewhere.
The first problem is that many “Trumps” bear only partial or superficial resemblance to their namesake. Among the least aptly named is “Mexico’s Trump,” President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. While both men can be called populists, that term belies their differences. López Obrador’s populism comes from the left and, as writer Jon Lee Anderson argues, unlike Trump’s, it “is not built on a hatred of ‘the other.’ ”
Another example of this oversimplification is Italy’s trio of Trumps. Media outlets have run headlines about “Italy’s Trump” in reference to at least three different men: perennial politician and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, founder of the populist Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo, and head of the far-right League party Matteo Salvini. While these men’s parties collectively won more than two-thirds of the seats in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies in March, the result has not been a grand Trumpian coalition. There’s no love lost between the anti-establishment Grillo and Berlusconi. While the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s League cobbled together a coalition, it took them three months to paper over their differences. Each of these men represents, at best, just one facet of Trump.
These “Italian Trumps” can serve as rough proxies for the three types of people most often labeled their country’s Trump—an inherently fuzzy typology, but one that captures how broadly the label is applied. There are, like Berlusconi, the brash business people with a background in media, some of whom have little more in common with Trump than that. João Doria, former host of the Brazilian Apprentice and the top vote-getter in Sunday’s first-round gubernatorial elections in São Paulo, has been compared to Trump despite being an avowed globalist. Kevin O’Leary, a reality TV star who made a failed bid to lead Canada’s Conservative Party last year, has been called the “Trump of the Great White North,” but his pro-immigration views are a far cry from the president’s.
Then there are, like Grillo, the anti-establishment, anti-corruption firebrands, often with an authoritarian streak. These include Jimmy Morales, who won Guatemala’s presidential elections in 2015 (against a former first lady); Imran Khan, whose party won the most votes in Pakistan’s election in August; and Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines and among those most frequently labeled “Trump-like.” But unlike Trump, who has come to place himself squarely on the right, these men’s populism tends to defy placement on the traditional left-right spectrum.
Finally, like Salvini, there are the right-wing nationalists, including Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Norbert Hofer in Austria, and Pauline Henson in Australia. But while these men and women share rhetorical ground with Trump, they are political veterans; they’ve waged war against migration and Islam for decades and, unlike Trump, have done so from outside of traditional political parties.
This speaks to a second reason to stop calling every reality star–turned–politician, foul-mouthed populist, or immigrant-basher a “Trump”: Many of them were “Trumpian” before he was. It would make more sense to talk about “America’s Berlusconi” than “Italy’s Trump.” We need not always view the world through the lens of American politics.
A third reason is that comparing other countries’ politicians to Trump can feed the efforts of those fishing for the comparison. Writers and commentators calling someone a Trump are often following that person’s lead. Veselin Mareshki, a populist, pro-Russia, anti-immigration businessman who outperformed expectations in Bulgaria’s 2016 presidential elections, gave himself the label: “I believe I am an anti-establishment candidate like Donald Trump,” he told the New York Times. Lulzim Basha, head of Albania’s main opposition party, pushed the slogan “Make Albania Great Again.” Mukemmel Sarimsakci, a naturalized U.S. citizen and developer working with the Trump Organization, bills himself as the “Turkish Trump.” And in Brazil, Bolsonaro took to Facebook the night before the election to exhort his followers to “make Brazil great.”
Political scientist Eric Merkley shows how one Trump wannabe manipulated the media by embracing his name. Shortly before the 2016 U.S. election, Kellie Leitch, a candidate for leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, proposed screening immigrants and visitors for “anti-Canadian values.” Within two weeks of this proposal, this “aspiring Canadian Trump’s” average share of the news coverage jumped from 13 to 47 percent, and her poll numbers skyrocketed. Coverage surged again after Leitch hailed Trump’s victory as an “exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well.” This points to a symbiotic—but potentially toxic—relationship between politicians eager to jump on Trump’s bandwagon and media equally eager to write about it.
Ultimately, however, Leitch’s candidacy flopped. This points to a final problem: Calling people “Trumps” can create false perceptions that they, too, will outperform polls and defy the “rules of politics.” In fact, the Trumps of Europe underperformed expectations across the continent following Trump’s election. Replicating Trump’s path to success could be hard in other countries with different conditions. Brazil, for example, has a two-round electoral system. While Bolsonaro remains the front-runner in the second round on Oct. 28, he won’t be able to win with a mere plurality (let alone a minority) of votes.
If Bolsonaro does win the second round, hailing (or lamenting) the ascent of a “Tropical Trump” will be to tie his victory to an American phenomenon he has little to do with. We’d do better to take candidates on their own terms, and when comparisons are warranted, to make them with care.